The Future of 3D Printing in Healthcare


Published: 28 June 2015

In a galaxy not so far away…

It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, but researchers and physicians are now 3D printing human body parts. 3D printing refers to the process of forming a three-dimensional object directly from a digital file. Just as ink is laid down in layers when something is printed on paper, the various materials used in 3D printing are formed into objects layer by layer. Using this technique, just about anything that exists in three dimensions may be replicated or built—from things as small as single cells to those as big as fully functioning houses.

Only last week did a medical team from Melbourne, Australia successfully replace a missing section of a person’s jaw—the left condyle—with a titanium 3D printed, personalised prosthetic. As stories like this continue to emerge, the reality of using 3D printing in the medical setting is becoming increasingly plausible. Already, many scientists and researchers across the world have begun experimenting. What’s next for 3D printing in healthcare?

The Study of Cancer Cells

Research on cancer cells is currently limited by our ability to identify and isolate cancer cells. Printing 3D cancer cells could overcome this challenge. With printed cells, researchers could study the nature of cells themselves, as well as the effects of various drug candidates on those cells. Biomedical engineers at Harvard University Medical School are already working on how to apply 3D printing techniques to the study of cancer cells.

The Development of Lifelike Limb Prostheses

Exo-leg concept.

Exo-leg concept by William Root.

Prosthetic limbs that have been used in the past degrade over time and are challenging to fit to patients’ bodies. In addition, they are not particularly lifelike. Their lack of good fit and their appearance make their use quite apparent to observers and can make patients self-conscious. 3D printers have the potential to make prostheses that better mimic real limbs.

The Printing of Organs for Transplants

Access to organs is limited, and many people die every day while waiting for organs to save them. Printing organs could increase access and also potentially improve outcomes for those receiving organ transplants. Scientists at the University of Iowa believe that functioning human organs will be printable within a decade.

The Development of Regulatory Organs

Once we learn how to develop organs, we can also work to customize those organs in specific ways to improve health outcomes. For instance, researchers could work on ways to improve outcomes for diabetic patients by creating 3D printed pancreatic organs that are sensitive to glucose.

The Development of Skin Grafts for Burn Victims

After people suffer from severe burns, their pain is not generally over. They typically then have to deal with a painful skin removal process so that they are able to provide skin for the area of their body that was burned. 3D printing, however, offers a way to acquire artificial skin layers for grafting. Researchers at the University of Toronto are developing a technique for this very process.

While the concept of 3D printing may seem novel, it has the potential to have a huge impact on the healthcare industry in the future. Using these new techniques, there is the potential to drastically improve the care offered to many patients, probably in ways that haven’t even been thought of yet.